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Breaking the glass ceiling

Apr 27, 2012

Women working in the media industry in Sri Lanka face an uphill task when it comes to bagging that top job, shows a survey conducted by the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

Colombo – In Sri Lanka women have reached the top in the popular professions of medicine, engineering, banking and in the private sector. While this encouraging trend has spread to family-owned business houses and even small-scale enterprises in the rural areas, the one profession where women have yet to enjoy that kind of equality and success is the media. The numbers of women joining mainstream media may have increased in the last few decades, but the numbers of those making it to prominent positions within the newspapers, radio, and television set-ups have not been able to keep pace.

Where are the women journalists and how are the few in the industry placed? These are just some of the questions that the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) attempts to answer through the country’s first comprehensive study on the participation of women in the media in the island nation. Between April and July last year, the SLPI surveyed 31 newspapers, 22 radio stations and seven TV stations. The results revealed that while there are only 29 per cent women working in the print media, television and radio fared a shade better on the gender scale, employing 33 and 35 per cent women respectively.

Says Imran Furkan, Chief Executive Officer, SLPI, “The objective of this exhaustive study, which used a combination of both quantitative and qualitative research approaches, was to get a first hand look at the distribution of male-female journalists within the mainstream media institutions in Sri Lanka. And to capture more detailed information about the attitudes, perceptions and experiences of female journalists. This was done, so as to determine the status of women within the industry and to understand the reasons that limit female participation.”

Of course, what is absolutely clear is that while there has been a surge in the number of institutions and colleges that teach journalism or mass media in the country, which has undoubtedly facilitated the entry of many more women into the profession, the odds of them reaching the top – read decision-making or managerial positions – are extremely slim even today.

Senior journalists and editors who were interviewed, and who have been in the industry for more than 15 years, remarked that they are glad to see the numbers up, it doesn’t however make much sense unless women begin to share the important positions and decision-making opportunities with their male colleagues.

The study throws light on some reasons for this unfortunate reality. The first point, brought up by a woman editor quoted in the study, is that, most often, only a select few women make journalism their lifetime vocation. “This is quite true,” says Sumana Saparamadu, who has retired as the editor of a weekly newspaper where she has worked for over 20 years. She feels that “women have other roles to play and do not stay long enough to glean the kind of experience required to head a newspaper”. They make a conscious decision not to progress beyond a certain point, and this is perhaps one of the main reasons why there is a minimal number of women at the top. Adds Saparamadu, “Marriage and home-making take first billing. This was true 20 years ago and despite more women going out to work now, this remains the main reason even today.”

Other social factors also act as deterrents. Women journalists often leave the profession prematurely as they are expected to travel out of town on work often, the study points out. Moreover, many hesitate to cover the high-risk, hardcore beats of crime, military or politics, preferring to stick to entertainment, fashion or social issues. Though there are no male dominated assignments – there are no overt restrictions on women journalists wanting to write even outside their beat – factors like family values or cultural and individual beliefs do come into play. “For some, hesitancy to work on certain assignments, travel or work late comes not from any personal experience but it is imbedded in them – it is part of culture,” said one senior journalist. Male journalists, obviously, hold the narrow view that their female colleagues simply don’t want to “push themselves enough”.

However, prominent women editors do not wish to see the assigning of beats as a gender thing. The study quotes one senior female editor saying: “Gender is never an issue. Assigning stories is based entirely on the strength of the individual.”

While the study points to a freedom of choice when it comes to picking a beat or assignment, Malini Govinnage, who has worked as a feature writer in both Sinhala and English newspapers, points to a major concern that prevents women from realising their full potential as career journalists: gender and sexual discrimination that is rampant in the working life of female journalists. According to her, women are forced to “look good” if they have to advance in their careers. So whereas some may use that to their advantage, those who are “lesser primped up” tend to lose out. Govinnage believes that the SLPI should have gender education and gender awareness programmes for both men and women working in the industry.

Limitations and perceptions aside, women journalists have firmly established their professional credibility and found their niche within the industry. According to the female editor of a daily newspaper, through the media industry, especially the print media, is very much male dominated things are rapidly changing. Even five years ago female editors like her were a rare breed, but now she is glad to see that there are a few more who hold the same position as her in the industry. She is convinced that the industry will have to accept many more women in what is she refers to as the “boys club”.

Many are positive that the change needed at the managerial and decision-making levels will come in time to come. As one senior journalist said, “There was a time when female journalists could only go up to heading a magazine or program section of media organisations. Now there are several who have managed to break through and rise to the top and in time, more women will follow suit.”

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